Home Brooklyn Building a better BQE: Greening the trench

Building a better BQE: Greening the trench

by Benjamin Kabak

Could a solar-panelled canopy cover the BQE Trench? (Courtesy of Starr Whitehouse)

New York City has long had a love/hate relationship with the BQE. Built by Robert Moses, the road is dug into a trench along Hicks St. in Carroll Gardens. This cacophonous highway has cut off much of Brooklyn from the waterfront district and created an array of dead-end streets and constant pollution. While some city planners would love to bury the BQE underneath Brownstone Brooklyn, a new plan to green the Carroll Gardens trench and reconnect the disjointed neighborhoods is gaining steam.

Last week, the Economic Development Corporation presented three proposals to better integrate the BQE trench into the surrounding area. The plans range in price from $10 million to $85 million and include a focus on green energy. If implemented, they would truly beautify an ugly part of the eastern edge of Brooklyn.

Developed by Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners, the plans are as follows:

  • Maximum Green: For $10-$18 million, the city would plant 412 new trees along the trench that would “help buffer the mayhem below.” Plans also include a market at Union St. and sound barriers.
  • Connections: For $20-$45 million plus an additional $123,000 in annual upkeep, the city would build six pedestrian and bicycle bridges over streets that dead-end at the BQE. Those streets included Warren, Baltic, Degrew, President and Carroll.
  • Green Canopy: The $85-million proposal is of course the most luxurious. As The Brooklyn Paper’s Gary Buiso describes: “A latticed, steel canopy is constructed over the trench to shield the view of traffic and provide environmental benefits by reducing noise and creating its energy from the sun, thanks to photovoltaic panels. Retail uses are also possible at Union Street, including an aptly named Trench Café.” Upkeep on this canopy would cost $477,000 a year, but it would offset costs by generating at least $300,000 in solar energy.

For improved access and safety, six pedestrian and bicycle bridges could span the BQE. (Courtesy of Starr Whitehouse)

From the outset, the city raised immediate concerns about the cost of both installing these green projects and maintaining them. “This would be a challenge to maintain additional bridges,” DOT’s Christopher Hrones said. “We think this is compelling, but we are clear that maintenance funds have to come along with this to make it successful.”

Brad Lander, though, the councilman for the area, believes in the project. “It’s not just a pipe dream,” he said. “We can work to make it happen.”

Essentially, the EDC and the neighborhood groups are hoping to achieve five goals for an area whose growth has been stunted by the highway that passes through it. The ideal project will feature noise reduction, pollution mitigation, beautification, improved connectivity and pedestrian safety. The BQE, which is a testament to a time in which Moses was allowed to build without regard for surroundings, has long been a blight on Brooklyn, but perhaps, if the money materializes, access to the waterfront will improve as an ugly trench turns into a swan. It might not be a plan as dramatic as a tunnel, but it’s far more feasible.

For just $10 million, trees planted along the Hicks St. trench could beautify the area. (Courtesy of Starr Whitehouse)

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Scott E November 24, 2010 - 1:22 pm

This plan is, pardon the expression, akin to putting lipstick on a pig. The BQE is a dangerous road with its narrow lanes, blind curves, sudden lane drops/shifts, inadequate capacity and lack of shoulders. It is a substandard roadway by every definition possible. I’d much rather see improvements or a replacement of the road overall than this.

Marc Shepherd November 24, 2010 - 2:43 pm

The BQE is an urban blight that should never have been built in its current form. But the $85 million quoted above is chump change, compared with what it would cost to build a modern replacement for the BQE. Making improvements to the driving surface (curvature, grading, shoulders) would also cost more, and wouldn’t really help the community.

Even the $85 million, which is the most expensive of three alternatives, is more than the city thinks it can afford. It is better to sign up for that, than to hold out hope for an ideal solution that is probably not going to happen in our lifetimes.

BrooklynBus November 24, 2010 - 5:26 pm

I don’t believe the lanes are narrower than on any other interstate, and the lack of shoulders are really unavoidable. The only real problem I see is the very dangerous entrance at Atlantic Avenue going southbound. I always avoid it unless I’m sure traffic is moving no faster than 20 mph. Then the cars merge one for one. Other times Fuggedaboutit. You can wait three minutes until a spot opens up and then you have to really step on the gas because of no acceleration lane whatsoever.

Meese November 24, 2010 - 1:48 pm

Fortunately, this section of BQE is straight, with no exits in between. And nobody’s gonna be jumping up and down to make the highway more attractive to cars.

Niccolo Machiavelli November 24, 2010 - 2:02 pm

I’ll break my radio silence to comment on this since I have a personal interest herein, unlike your other commentators, who have only the well-being of the planet in mind when they write-in.

There are many great plans that anyone could proffer for this strip of automobilelandia. Personally, I prefer burying the fucking thing and building an actual city atop it, with residences, employers and open space in somewhat equal parts (including taxes).

Regardless, the issue is how to pay for whatever you do. If that were not the issue, why include the price tags?

This particular strip of asphalt and concrete is part of the Interstate Highway System and therefor endowed by the creator with certain inalienable rights, particularly, but not limited to the free passage thereby for cars, vans, truck and motorcycles. This creates a certain Federal lift that were it have ever have been left to the neighborhood would have never been lifted. Part of that lift, the biggest part, is the money lift.

This is all part of the greater Verrezano to Kosciusko passageway that has scarred and devalued the abutting neighborhoods and the associated manufacturing districts since its construction. The longest strip of this road running through Bay Ridge and Sunset Park cries out for tunneling. In the long run that is the cheapest alternative and the only way for New York City to reclaim this space lost to commuters from Staten Ireland, New Jersey (the Garbage State) and points afar.

The only issue is how to pay for it. And, the only rational way to pay for it is to charge the users of it. Tolling is a “win-win” (don’t you hate that phrase) because it will simultaneously build a new road, open up new real estate in New York City (something otherwise only God could do) and decrease the congestion on the existing road (also only something God could do).

Sharon November 24, 2010 - 7:01 pm

Tolls are taxes. Taxes on top of taxes already paid by motorist not to mention added to the cost of everything bought or sold in this city. A city where taxes already chew up nearly 60% of most peoples wages from income taxes, real estate, fuel taxes, cell phone cable etc. Most renters don’t realize the effect on taxes on the landlord and there rents. As a former member of the board at my former CO-OP I can attest to a near doubling of the cost.

With that said, the BQE needs to be buried or simply build over encasing it. I thing building over it would be a better solution.

The Carrol Gardens section can have new market rate housing over it . The section from 65th street to Hamilton ave the same can be done. NOTE MARKET RATE HOUSING none of this “affordable housing bs” which in the end drives up taxes further and makes these LESS AFFORDABLE” In ever “program” someone is getting greased and the Charlie Rangels and friends of the world are the only ones making out

Niccolo Machiavelli November 24, 2010 - 7:37 pm

All Sharon, I will go with you assumption, incorrect though I find it, that tolls are taxes. If so, and I guess you are convinced that it is so, then they are taxes collected on the use of the roadway. Where do you suggest the taxes (if tolls are taxes are taxes also tolls?) to build and maintain that enormously expensive infrastructure be raised. Income taxes, payroll taxes, sales taxes, gas taxes, subway fares (are fares taxes too?), real estate taxes. I just feel that taxes for the use of the road should be paid for using the road, for the pollution dis-economy and the spatial economic opportunities foregone for the highway.

I do agree with your point on market rate housing being a more valuable use than the other alternatives you suggest but I sense the sort of anti-government perspective that gave us this trench to begin with. Still though, paying for the entire schmeer is enormously expensive and the money won’t just fall from Rush Limbaugh’s pockets to make this sort of thing happen.

There is, after all, no such thing as a “free” highway anywhere.

Boris November 24, 2010 - 8:35 pm


When you pay $100 for a ticket to a Broadway show, do you also call this $100 a tax? After all, it allows you to enjoy the use of certain facilities (the theater) for a certain time.

Tolls are a variant of user fees for a service provided; in this case, the service is permission to drive on a highway and use the associated facilities. If you believe in capitalist enterprise, it should not surprise you that you have to pay money to get goods or services from other people.

BrooklynBus November 25, 2010 - 1:03 pm

You can’t say that tolls are a permission to drive on a highway. If all highways charged tolls then that would be true. However it is just an east coast phenomenon. Freeways, also highways, are just that “free.” They are paid from taxes. Here we pay tolls instead on some roads. That’s why tolls are taxes.

And I fail to see what this has to do with the price of Broadway shows.

Alon Levy November 25, 2010 - 11:47 pm

It’s not “just an East Coast phenomenon” – it’s actually very common outside North America.

But okay, let’s pretend the world ends at the boundaries of the US. It doesn’t really matter that some or even most US governments choose to make highways free; tolls are still not taxes. By analogy, the fact that some small cities have free transit systems does not suddenly make the subway fare a tax.

Alon Levy November 24, 2010 - 5:28 pm

I find the solar panel idea really tacky. Solar energy requires vast amounts of space for panels; it should ideally be placed where land is cheap and the sun is plentiful. Solar farms do not belong in a city any more than cornfields.

BrooklynBus November 24, 2010 - 5:28 pm

If any improvements are made to rebuild the BQE, it should be on relocating the portion above Third Avenue, wither by replacing it with a tunnel or a surface road along the river.

John November 24, 2010 - 8:38 pm

Covering over the trench simply with a strip of parks and/or playgrounds might be viable, if the city can figure out how to vent the exhausts beneath it away from the area. Simply leaving open areas would create the same situation the city currently has with the apartments over the Trans-Manhattan Expressway.

Boris November 24, 2010 - 8:42 pm

I-278 should be sold to a private investor or turnpike authority, and a portion of the lump sum payment distributed as a rebate to angry drivers like Sharon. Tolls should be set to a reasonable amount which will allow the highway to be brought up to first-world standards, preferably by putting most of it in a tunnel. Of course it can also be restriped to two lanes each way, because that’s all that would be necessary.

Niccolo Machiavelli November 25, 2010 - 9:38 pm

Jeesh BB, why even answer that silliness. One more time and I promise never to comment again.

Roads are not free whether they are paid for by taxes, tolls or the Wizard of Oz. But they are more expensive in NYC than anywhere else. And I was merely asking that Sharon identify who was going to pay for all these dazzling road porojects gutting my neighborhood. I had suggested, somewhat naively that perhaps that cost should be born by the users of that road in the foirm oif a toll, Sharon declared that to be a tax, of which she stated we already pay too much.

You and Sharon apparently support the present system of Socialism for Trucks.

And, several non-East Coast roads charge tolls, Chicago Skyway, recently privatized springs to mind, but I guess Sharon and BB think that to be a tax too.

Remind again why people blog.


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